My turn: Three cheers for copper in war on pandemics

For the Monitor
Published: 5/20/2020 6:20:10 AM

An estimated 1.7 million hospital patients acquire infections in the United States each year, according to the Centers for Disease Control, and 99,000 of them die.

That sobering data came to light before the outbreak of the coronavirus pandemic, and it does not include lives lost to infections in doctor’s offices, nursing homes and assisted-living facilities. This year the number of deaths due to infections is expected to soar. Elderly people are particularly vulnerable, but there are reasons for hope.

To me one of the most compelling images of hope in America is something you see everywhere – copper piping. There is a wealth of evidence about the attributes of copper, an antimicrobial metal, that could be used on hard surfaces in hospitals and other facilities to reduce the spread of infections.

Copper is a pretty miraculous material. Used on doorknobs and bed and IV frames and other hard surfaces, copper kills viruses, influenzas and bacteria like E.coli. When the coronavirus lands on most hard surfaces, it can live up to four or five days. But when it lands on copper or a copper alloy like brass, it begins to die within minutes, and is undetectable within hours. Copper disables viruses and bacteria, and it can drastically decrease the spread of infections.

The evidence of copper’s value to public health is striking. A 2015 study compared infection rates at three hospitals and found that when copper alloys were used on fixtures, infection rates fell by 58%. Another study conducted the following year inside a pediatric intensive care unit showed a similar result.

Why do some health care facilities want to deny the advantages of copper and copper alloys? The cost of switching to copper fixtures would be negligible in comparison to the cost of lives lost.

Copper’s antimicrobial properties were recognized long ago. That’s why copper is used for pipes that carry water into homes, because it kills viruses and bacteria that are resistant to drugs. The use of copper boomed during the 1920s when it became popular for fixtures in bathrooms and kitchens. But it was subsequently pushed out of many building applications by a wave of new (and cheaper) materials that were favored by architects and designers – stainless steel, aluminum, tempered glass and plastics.

Now is the time to bring copper back. Increasing the use of antimicrobial surfaces won’t eliminate the need for hand-washing and sanitary cleaning. But if recent history is any guide, the adoption of antimicrobial surfaces in hospitals and nursing homes could go a long way toward reducing infections and the spread of deadly pathogens.

(Virendra Mathur is professor emeritus in the Department of Chemical Engineering at the University of New Hampshire.)


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